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Human Factor in Emergencies

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Category: Human Behaviour Human Behaviour
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This article describes the impact of emergency situations on both flight crews and air traffic controllers and gives advice for coping with the issues that arise.

Introduction

An emergency is usually associated with two words – Workload (there are more things to be done in less time) and Stress (due to the increased workload and the unfamiliarity of the environment). Because of this a person is prone to reacting differently and unexpectedly in such situations.

Impact on the flight deck

  • The workload can be extremely high, especially in the initial stage.
  • High stress levels are often experienced. There is a sense of personal danger.
  • Language and communication differences can be experienced. Language difficulties are usually exacerbated in such circumstances.
  • Time distortion – the crew’s perception is that there is too much to do in too little time.

Impact on the controller

Although controllers do not have the sense of personal danger the flight crew is exposed to, they are also subject to stress when an emergency situation happens. The most common issues are:

  • Controllers feel the urge to “do something”. This sometimes makes them perform unnecessary actions.
  • Higher workload – the emergency usually happens without warning and the controller needs to come up with a new (and sound) plan almost immediately.
  • “Tunnel vision” (i.e. too much focus on certain details while overall perception is degraded) can easily occur when under stress.
  • Time distortion – controllers’ perception is that too much time has elapsed between communications.
  • Memory is degraded under stress. Critical details can easily be forgotten leading to an even higher workload or the transmission of wrong information.

Controllers should take into account that in emergencies the flight crew is likely to:

  • follow the aviate-navigate-communicate routine, meaning that communication has lowest priority.
  • sound calm and collected even when it is anything but that on the flight deck. Voice does not necessarily reveal the seriousness of the situation.
  • be reluctant to declare emergency. The reasons for this may be various.

Defences

There is not much to be done about the higher workload that usually arises in an emergency situation. The procedures to be followed are usually standardised and optimised in terms of requirement compliance and ease of use. The psychological issues on the other hand offer opportunities for improvement since all individuals have different reaction to emergency and stress. The advice in this section is derived from best practices and common sense and is not to be considered exhaustive nor is intended to supersede local procedures.

  • Among other things, simulator training for emergencies helps people familiarize themselves with the concept of non-standard situation as a whole.
  • People should be aware of the psychological issues arising from emergency situations (e.g. tunnel vision, time distortion, memory degradation, the urge to “do something”, etc.) and be ready with techniques to cope with them. Calling for assistance (e.g. the shift supervisor or colleagues) is another way to ‘secure’ resources for additional support as necessary.
  • Writing down notes combats memory degradation, thus reducing the chance of transmitting wrong/distorted information, saving time later on and making report form filling easier.
  • Controllers should not harass flight crews with information requests. Whenever possible, information should be obtained from reliable alternative sources.
  • Controllers should make their best to avoid focusing on one thing (situation, aircraft, information source, etc.) and make sure they maintain a complete picture in their mind.
  • Controllers should minimize requests for information, especially early on when the cockpit workload is at its highest and the crew might not have properly diagnosed the problem and elected a proper course of action.
  • Post event stress may occur both for flight crew and controllers. It is advisable that the affected people seek help (e.g. Critical Incident Stress Management).

Both the aircraft crews and the controllers undertake regular training to handle emergencies and practise the actions that may have to be taken in such an event. These recurring exercises enable personnel to build confidence and knowledge of the basic and predictable steps necessary to handle the emergency events to be carried out consistently. It will trigger the appropriate learned reaction and skills devoted to coping with the unanticipated or unique aspects of the situation.

  • Co-operation and co-ordination are key factors in helping to minimize the workload of both aircraft crews and the controllers.
  • Keeping the flight deck and the ATC procedures and communications as close as possible to normal will assist towards the successful resolution of the situation.

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